Man of the House: Spring is in the air, rototillers are in the ground

The front pasture is looking a little tall, thanks to the nearly monsoonal rains, so the 300-pound beagle is doing what he does best, eating it. It is spring succulent, his own personal salad bar.

"Would you like a nice wine with that?" I ask. "Maybe some French bread?"

But he doesn't answer. He's so full of himself, this dog.

"Were you raised by wolves?" I ask.

Actually, when you're 300 pounds, and roughly the height of a ground ball, you must graze constantly. I don't know exactly what he eats, yet he eats everything. Like me, I think he has an exaggerated, almost orgasmic sense of taste.

But we are out in the sunshine, that's the important thing, enjoying the finest April in memory. The mower's grass catcher has a full belly, sagging against the fabric (think Lasorda). In August, the grass catcher will fill with dust and the broken promises of Miracle-Gro. In April, the grass catcher is thick with fronds of rich fescue. Seriously, you could make wine from this stuff.

You know, I have neighbors I see only when they scurry from the front door to the car. It's almost Hitchcockian. Why buy a house when you use it only for sleeping? Get outta your coffin. Walk the grounds. Fix a gutter. Plant a tree. Putter around.

To each his own, I guess, but getting out and working on the house is a way of saying you're committed to your surroundings. It's like hanging Christmas lights or giving to the local schools. It's an acknowledgement that we are not alone.

And this being the best April, a good time to start.

Last Saturday, my wife, Posh, was at the giant hardware emporium — at 40 acres, bigger than most municipal airports — where she ran into Gary and Michael and other parents stocking up on the kinds of things you need in spring: tomatoes, twine, zinnias, seeds for bell peppers.

Did the dinosaurs ever plant things — other than each other? Because that's the sort of instinctual urges we get this time of year, as if the DNA of some distant ancestors has begun to smolder. If I remember correctly, our family tree has the tiniest little branch that reaches back to a stegosaurus. Ran a bar in Trenton. Then, like a lot of my distant uncles, succumbed to bad marriages and the long, brutal Eastern winter.

We are all chemistry, right? Hormones, pheromones, sulfites from last night's merlot. We fight through it the best we can. Which I guess explains gardening.

I remember watching my folks garden while growing up. Come spring, my old man would rent a big rototiller, slather on Sea & Ski and actually venture out of doors.

It was like watching a rodeo. The big gas-powered rototiller — imagine a lawn mower crossed with a pit bull — would drag him across the giant prairie garden, both of them screaming. We used to make bets on how long he'd last before stopping to kick the thing in the groin.

Swore such an addiction would never afflict me, didn't see the attraction, just shoot me. Now here I am, 40 years later, killing an entire afternoon by replanting a herd of cala lilies. Euphoria isn't quite the right word. It's the same satisfaction you get from reading something great by Dickens or Dahl, or tasting a really good Italian soup. A tingle to the skin, angels on your neck. Salvation.

I stretch before gardening, then pause for a quick nap, then get right at things. I'm not much for putting things off. I usually work for a full 90 minutes before taking another break. I'm not looking to get promoted.

I do the frontyard first, then move to the back, where the black olives are still coming down — nasty things, like errant punctuation. I used to throw them away till a reader suggested brining them.

So now I have these 5-gallon buckets that I bought cheap from the donut shop. They sit in the garage, full of olives, soaking for a month. We're at the point where we've done a couple of test jars, bathed the bitter olives in garlic, tarragon, vinegar. They're still a bit sour, so we'll let them brine some more. But the taste is explosive, the difference between a store-bought tomato and homegrown.

I don't know what it is about gardening that's so soothing. Maybe it's the sheer satisfaction of fresh air and sun. But there's got to be something more to it, or I would just visit the backyard with a magazine and a beer.

Here's the real payoff, though: When it's over, I have the best sleep of the week. There's that warmth in the neck, in your muscles, the shooting pains in your lower back as if the surgeon forgot a tool.

But it's all good, gardening. As if I'm tending to my own empty ballpark.

Oh, April. Somebody write a poem.

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